BAD SANTA - DVD review

With an open mind and a high tolerance for obscenity, Bad Santa can be a laugh-out-loud frolic.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

For the record, the theatrical version of "Bad Santa" runs ninety-one minutes; the unrated version I reviewed a few years ago runs a bit longer, about ninety-eight minutes; and the Director's Cut reviewed here runs eighty-eight minutes, the shortest version of all.

On the new audio commentary that accompanies the Director's Cut, director Terry Zwigoff says, "This is the film as I originally intended it to be seen." Certainly, he has done no harm to the movie by cutting a few minutes, adding a few more, and rearranging some scenes. The film is as blasphemous as ever, yet may be a little more touching.

Be that as it may, the changes in the Director's Cut may seem more numerous and more substantial to the director than to the average viewer. As a person who had only seen the film once before, in its unrated edition, I did not find much here that was remarkably different. I also listened to the audio commentary with director Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman in its entirety and found that entertaining. The two men are pleasantly and appropriately irreverent. However, it is not always clear when they refer to various changes in the film if they mean changes from the original script to the theatrical release or changes to the unrated edition or changes made specifically for the Director's Cut. Nevertheless, their commentary makes amusing listening. Interestingly, Zwigoff complains any number of times that particular scenes were too silly or over-the-top for his taste, but he needed them and he couldn't think of any other way to handle them. Both men seem to dislike test audiences, perhaps because studios put too much stock in them and insist on changes accordingly. Anyway, Zwigoff and Hoffman keep up a steady stream of comments, with very few pauses along the way.

I have to admit that it seemed like there was more profanity in the Director's Cut than even in the unrated edition I had watched before, but obviously I wasn't keeping a running account of the matter. I don't know; probably my imagination. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, originated the story idea, co-produced, and contributed additional dialogue; maybe their perverse sense of humor included further obscenities. The bottom line is something Zwigoff says--that people expected his Director's Cut to be more raunchy than the theatrical version, more like the unrated cut, but, in fact, that was not what he was up to. He says he was aiming for more truthful performances, and in this regard I think he succeeded.

OK, let's get to the film. So, how old were you when you first discovered there was no Santa Claus? Six? Eight? How old were you when you realized that not every Santa on every street corner and in every department store was as upright and squeaky clean as you would have liked to believe? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty-five?

"Bad Santa" gives us an outrageously distorted comic portrait of everything we ever feared about all those department store clones with the red suits, white beards, and hearty "ho-ho-ho's." In this 2003 farce, Billy Bob Thornton provides us with a Santa not even a mother could love. In the process of being as flagrantly grotesque as possible, the movie provides some wonderfully off-color laughs. Thornton's Santa is everything we've always dreaded and worse. He's a loser named Willie "Tugboat" Soke, a grumpy, slovenly, depressed, twice-divorced, suicidal, profane, boozing, thieving, safecracking, immoral, womanizing ex-con. He is the Anti-Claus.

Willie supports himself eleven months of the year by working one month, December, as a department-store Santa. But there's a catch. He and his partner, the brains of the outfit, a little person named Marcus "The Prince" Skidmore (Tony Cox), while pretending to be an ordinary Santa-and-elf team for a major mall store each Christmas season, conspire to rob the place of everything it's got. They're pretty successful at it, too, and by the time the movie opens they've carried out this scheme any number of times.

But this year is different. This year Willie meets "the kid." The kid is a fat, shy, curly-haired eight or nine-year old who unaccountably takes a liking to Willie after meeting him in the department store. The kid, whose name is Thurman Merman, is wonderfully played by Brett Kelly in a totally straight, deadpan manner that's every bit the match for Willie's repulsively extroverted behavior. The meaner Willie is to the kid, the more the kid likes him. The kid (perhaps a reflection of Chaplin's "The Kid") is the eternal optimist.

Because the kid has no mother and a father in jail for embezzlement, he is living in an upscale house with his senile old granny (Cloris Leachman), a situation Willie sees to his advantage by first stealing every dime he can find in the joint and then conniving to live there. Apparently, the kid has an enormous inferiority complex and an even more enormous need for a father figure in his life; thus, his attachment to Willie's Santa.

Of course, you can see where this material is going, but the surprising and delightful thing is that it seldom actually goes there. Not the way we figure it to, anyway. Every time we think the movie's going to get all mushy and sentimental on us, like having the kid soften up the grizzled old reprobate, the story takes a different turn and leads us to something wholly unexpected. Remember, this is decidedly not a "family" movie.

The moviemakers fill their creation with sex, smut, nudity, violence, and grossness, and they never let you forget it.

Although the movie's credits attribute the writing to Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, I said earlier that the movie's executive producers were the Coen brothers. Why the Coens chose at the time to direct the anemic "Ladykillers" (2004) rather than this is anybody's guess, but they left their "Santa" tale in the capable hands of director Terry Zwigoff, who had earlier dealt with the eccentric cartoonist Robert Crumb in the movie "Crumb" (1994) and an eccentric teen in "Ghost World" (2000), and would later do the eccentric "Art School Confidential" (2006). An eccentric Santa was a piece of cake for him.

Moreover, the picture contains an assortment of eccentric characters straight out of the Coen brothers' handbook. For instance, Willie will bed anything resembling a female--young, old, big, or tall--and as the story proceeds he meets another person besides the kid who becomes a devoted friend, in this case a sexy bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham), who enjoys making it with Santa Claus's. Like the kid, Sue appears to appreciate Willie all the more the meaner he is to her. And Willie really is mean to everyone. He's an equal-opportunity grouch.

Then there's Marcus's girlfriend, Lois (Lauren Tom), a cold-blooded, coldhearted accomplice in Willie and Marcus's machinations, who is forever sneering in the film. She's wonderful. And there's Gin (Bernie Mac), a crooked department-store security chief who catches on to Willie and Marcus's plan and wants to cut himself in. And, best of all, there's Bob Chipeska (John Ritter), an ultraconservative department-store manager whom Willie describes as "pathetic," and he really is. He's a spineless milquetoast who senses something amiss in Willie and Marcus's behavior but is such a wimp he can't bring himself to do anything about it. This was Ritter's last film before his untimely death, and it was fitting that he went out on such a memorable character part. Ritter's facial gestures alone are priceless as he screws up his face just thinking about what Willie and a very large woman were doing in a dressing room of the store's "Big-and-Tall" department.

Commendably, Zwigoff is not afraid of taking his time, even more so in the Director's Cut. Where some younger directors might have been inclined toward a frenetic, quick-edited tempo, Zwigoff allows his story to unfold at a reasonably leisurely pace, maybe relying overmuch on alternating medium and close shots but generally building each scene in lifelike, incremental steps.

I also enjoyed the moviemakers' taste in music and wondered how much of a hand the Coens had in this regard. I mean, any film that uses such an eclectic mix of singers and composers can't be all bad; they include Frederic Chopin, Bobby Sherman, Eddie Arnold, Gioacchino Rossini, Burl Ives, Dean Martin, Peter Tchaikovsky, Boots Randolph, Andy Williams, Dimitri Shostakovich, Bing Crosby, Ricky Nelson, Giuseppe Verdi, Bunnygrunt, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I'd like to hear the soundtrack album.

If the film has any failing at all, it's a propensity for making Willie a little too venomous at times, the Director's Cut softening him only slightly. Thornton's portrayal of the character is spot on, to be sure, and I can't imagine any other actor surpassing him in the role; yet his Willie can be so vile, we have to wonder occasionally if this is a comedy after all. Plus, Willie is almost constantly drunk (and Thornton is said to have been actually drunk on the set on more than one occasion), which is humorous for a while but gets old rather fast.

With an open mind and a high tolerance for obscenity, "Bad Santa" can be a laugh-out-loud frolic. Thornton's crumb-bum character may be nasty and offensive, but he's ultimately sympathetic; and the film's action may be wildly uneven, but the result is the viewer's being uplifted in a totally perverse sort of way. It's an unusual but very funny film. Just keep it on the top shelf and well away from the children. And don't expect the Director's Cut to change the ending substantially.

The picture quality of Buena Vista's first DVD releases of this film was fine, but nowhere near the best available. Now, for the Director's Cut the video engineers have increased the bit rate, and the video quality is much better than before, the picture again enhanced for widescreen televisions. The theatrical-release size was an 1.85:1 ratio, and here it nicely fills out my television's 1.78:1 screen. While the colors were always bright enough before, the delineation was slightly blurry and fuzzy, with darker scenes appearing somewhat murky. With this new edition we see deeper colors and improved definition. Although the darker scenes are, indeed, dark, they reveal a good deal of inner detail, too. A minimum amount of fine grain accompanies the film, nothing to worry about, and there are no moiré effects or transfer artifacts to complain about, either.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound remains the same as before and does an excellent job across the front three speakers, evenly filling out a nice stereo spread. There still isn't much action in the surround speakers, however, beyond the expected ambiance enhancement for crowds scenes, music, and such. On the one occasion the film requires a strong bass, the sonics come through.

The Director's Cut augments the special features with the new audio commentary I mentioned in the beginning. In addition, there are four deleted or alternate scenes, at least one of which, the training room scene, the filmmakers could have left in the film. A nine-minute behind-the-scenes special, "Not Your Typical Christmas Movie," remains, with the usual interviews and back patting. Finally, there are four minutes of outtakes; Sneak Peeks at seven other BV releases; nineteen scene selections; and a chapter insert. English is the only spoken language offered, and there are now Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
It's not my job to second guess other people and their reactions to a movie, but if I were a betting man I'd wager that a decade from now viewers will be considering "Bad Santa" a Christmas classic for adults. That's a far cry from a traditional Christmas classic, understand. It's daring and ready to take chances, and with few exceptions it's unwilling to cop out. Well, perhaps one, a controversial ending. Then again, viewers may forget this movie entirely in ten years. Who knows. Today's abrasive, cynical humor may be passé in no time.

In any case, as I've said, "Bad Santa" is not a picture for everyone, whether it's the theatrical version, the unrated edition, or the Director's Cut. The movie intentionally strikes out at every cherished holiday belief possible, yet in the end it curiously conveys as much true Christmas spirit any conventional Christmas film you can name. In other words, it's a typically twisted Coen brothers product, even if they didn't direct it.


Film Value